For the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible, I will be posting a series of articles on the history of the KJV that was originally written by a good friend of mine, Jon Moffitt who is a seminary student at The Masters Seminary in Sun Valley Ca. He wrote this paper last year for an introduction to Bible class. So, none of these writings are original with me, but he gave me permission to post them for the benefit of our readers.
The focus behind this paper is a historical study to present the facts concerning the birth of the King James Bible. Many of the details contained in this overview have been often overlooked and not seen as important. Understanding the history of English bibles in general will help answer many questions and misconceptions concerning Bible versions. The primary focus will be uncovering the facts in relation to the development and production of the King James Bible.
A History of English Bibles from Tyndale to the Rheims–Douay
Tyndale Bible (1525). William Tyndale was a very gifted linguist who was fluent in seven different languages. Tyndale began his work of translating the NT into English during a time when the Roman Catholic Church forbade any translation into the vernacular (common language). Tyndale was the first to translate the entire NT from the Greek into English (although he did consult the Latin Vulgate and Luther’s German translation).[i] John Wycliffe did produce the first English translation in 1380, however it was not from the Greek and Hebrew but derived from the Latin Vulgate. We owe much credit to Mr. Tyndale for his outstanding work. The majority of his work would be used in future English translations. These are some of the beloved phrases that came from Tyndale’s translation: Be not weary in well doing; Am I my brother’s keeper? The salt of the earth; The signs of the times; A law unto themselves; The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak; Fight the good fight; With God all things are possible.
Tyndale also brought some new words into the English language to better maintain the theological implication behind the original language. Some of the more important words were Passover, intercession, scapegoat, and atonement.[ii] Tyndale was murdered before he could finish translating the OT, making it only to 2 Chronicles.[iii]
Coverdale’s Bible (1535). An assistant to Tyndale was a man named Miles Coverdale. In comparison to Tyndale, he did not know any of the original Greek and Hebrew languages; therefore he relied heavily on translations of the OT into Dutch, Latin, and Luther’s German translation.[iv] This Bible would be in the same line as Wycliffe’s Bible because it was a translation of a translation. The major difference between the two is that Wycliffe’s OT was incomplete. Coverdale was also the first to place the Apocryphal books at the end of the OT separating them from the canonical books demonstrating a distinction between inspired and non-inspired books.[v] The order in which we have our Bibles today can also be attributed to the Coverdale Bible.[vi] This was the first English Bible approved by the crown (King Henry VIII) to be published, ironically, one year after Tyndale was burned at the stake for publishing his NT.[vii]
Matthew’s Bible (1537). The translation of this Bible is attributed to the name Thomas Matthew, to hide the identity of the real translator, John Rogers (who also was an assistant to Tyndale).[viii] This is the second Bible licensed by King Henry VIII that was placed in circulation. Roger combined the best of both Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s work, and to assist with interpretation and doctrinal clarity adding notes in the margin.[ix] The Matthew’s Bible was also the first to separate the books into chapters and paragraphs (but not into verses).[x] John Roger was also the first martyr under the reign of Catholic Queen Mary (known as bloody Mary).[xi]
The Great Bible (1539). The name of this Bible comes from its size (16 ½ inches by 11 inches).[xii] Miles Coverdale was commissioned once more by King Henry VIII to produce another translation into English. This new Bible was to be placed in every church in England. As Coverdale revised the Matthew’s Bible, he again was acting more as editor than translator from the original languages. In this Bible, Coverdale used most of Tyndale’s work for the OT from Genesis to 2 Chronicles; and from Ezra to Malachi, he used the Matthew’s Bible (a revision of Coverdale’s first Bible). For the NT he not only used Tyndale’s translation, but also portions from his first Bible, and the Matthew’s Bible.[xiii] Coverdale left out many of the notes that were added for clarity in the margins of the Matthew’s Bible, and the alternative readings were left out as well.
The Geneva Bible (1560). The name of this Bible comes from the location it was translated, Geneva Switzerland. In 1553 King Edward died and was succeeded by Mary Tudor (blood Mary). She was a Roman Catholic queen who put a stop to any translation work, and began killing Protestants, the first being John Rogers.[xiv] Because of this persecution, hundreds of Christians fled to Germany and Switzerland seeking refuge. Coverdale also left and settled in Geneva. During this time many of the Puritan refugees in Geneva were skilled scholars. Godly men like Theodore Beza, who was considered to be one of the greatest scholars of his time; William Whittingham, the general editor of the Geneva Bible (also brother-in-law of John Calvin); William Cole from Cambridge; and Anthony Gilby who was a very skilled Hebrew scholar who oversaw the translation of the OT. These men saw a need to make a new translation rather than a revision of an old one (as the previous translations were revisions of other translations), utilizing the latest textual evidence available to them.[xv] Not only was this a fresh translation (the Hebrew Bible had never been completely translated into English up to this point)[xvi], but the Geneva Bible also contributed many other new facets:
(1) The presence of marginal notes that provided commentary on the biblical text;
(2) a smaller size, making it more affordable than its predecessors and giving it a mass appeal as opposed merely to official church sanction; (3) printing in easier-to-read roman typeface rather than block gothic lettering; (4) italicizing of words not in the original text but needed to make sense in English; (5) dividing the text into verses as well as chapters.[xvii]
The Bishop’s Bible (1568). The Geneva Bible was never accepted as a legitimate translation by the Anglican Church or Queen Elizabeth. It was mostly hated because the Puritans who translated it were very Protestant in their choice of words, and the commentary notes added in the margins taught reformed theology that often opposed Anglican doctrine.[xviii] Because the Great Bible did not hold up to the popularity of the Geneva Bible, the archbishop of Canterbury (Matthew Parker) initiated a new translation. The translation was to be a revision of the Great Bible and all improvements upon the translation would only be implemented if it varied from the Greek and Hebrew. Parker only allowed Bishops or those who would eventually become one work on this translation. This decision resulted in the Bible’s name. The quality of the revision was very poor because of the lack of accountability over the translators. In the new Bishop’s Bible not much was changed in the OT and Apocryphal books from the Great Bible, but in some sections of the NT there was much freedom taken by many of the bishops leading to erroneous translations.[xix]
The Douay-Rheims Bible (1582–1610). This translation was also in response to the Geneva Bible’s popularity, but this time it was coming from the Roman Catholic Church. The popularity of the Geneva Bible along with its Protestant marginal notes caused many Catholics to leave their faith and join the reformers. To battle against this, William Allen who had left England during the reign of Elizabeth I (a Protestant Queen), published a NT translation from the Latin Vulgate in 1582 in Rheims, and later the OT in Douay in 1509–10. Roman Catholic doctrine is clearly seen in many passages of this bible, and the marginal notes are clearly focused on presenting this bible as a catechism for Catholics.[xx]
A. C. Partridge, English Biblical Translation
(London: Deutsch, 1973), 38.
[ii] Ibid, 40.
[iii] Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 299.
[iv] T. Harwood Pattison, The History of the English Bible (Philadelphia: American Baptist, 1894), 135.
[v] James B. Williams and Randolph Shaylor, eds., From the mind of God to the mind of man: A Layman’s Guide to How We Got our Bible (Greenville: Ambassador-Emerald, 1999), 115.
[vi] Bruce Metzger, The Bible in Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 61.
[viii] Williams and Shaylor, 117.
[x] Leland Ryken, Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 43.
[xi] Williams and Shaylor, 117.
[xii] Wegner, 296.
[xiii] Ibid, 299.
[xiv] Williams and Shaylor, 119.
[xv] Ibid, 121.
[xvi] Wegner, 301.
[xvii] Ryken, 44.
[xix] Metzger, 66.
[xx] Wegner, 304–5.